Stephen Harris: magic with miso and mackerel

Just when I thought I had ruined dinner for everyone, my oily fish turned out to be a sensation Credit: Andrew Twort & Annie Hudson

'Do you ever regret turning your hobby into your job?” I have been asked this a lot lately, and the answer is no.

But I do miss the holidays I used to go on with a large group of friends. Once I became a chef, I had just two weeks of paid holiday over four years, and by the time I opened the Sportsman I’d got out of the habit. 

Before I turned pro, we’d book somewhere big enough for eight to 10 of us, with a well-equipped kitchen. Then we’d spend the whole week shopping for great ingredients and cooking feasts that became the focus of the day.

I have always loved oily fish and can remember eating a lot of sardines and pilchards as a child

Back in 1990 we were staying in a beautiful farmhouse in Normandy and the cooking had become competitive. For the others it was still a hobby but, for me, it was turning into an obsession. I had packed my well worn copy of Elizabeth David and spent days thumbing through it for ideas.

My turn to cook finally arrived, and that morning I went to the local hypermarket and found the most beautiful mackerel, still stiff, like silver and blue torpedoes. They would be my starter; the main course was fillet of beef with cep sauce and for pudding I decided to serve the local buckwheat pancakes stuffed with apple and flambéed in calvados. 

There was a time when even Stephen didn't know how to gut a fish Credit: Martin Pope

I didn’t know the French for “Can you gut them, please?” so they came whole and I had to clean them myself. I laugh at this now but at the time it was a real challenge. I told myself: “If you want to be a chef you will have to learn how to gut fish.” Nowadays, they would be gutted, cleaned and ready in less than a minute, without a second thought.

In a fit of romantic optimism I started a fire outside with apple wood which was ours to use. Unfortunately the wood was still damp. I got it as hot as I could but through the thick smoke I could see that the mackerel wasn’t cooking. It looked like my big night was going to be a disaster.

Everyone was hungry, drinking on empty stomachs, wondering where the food was. On the verge of admitting defeat, I thought I might as well try one. It was sensational.

The mackerel cooked so slowly and the fire was so smoky that the fish had hot-smoked at a very low temperature. The flesh had lost none of its moisture but had taken on the smoky, tangy taste of the apple wood; the skin was like a fine, crisp layer of paper. The night had been saved.

I have always loved oily fish and can remember eating a lot of sardines and pilchards as a child. There was something about the savoury taste that I couldn’t put my finger on, but when I had mackerel in a three-star restaurant in Paris, marinated in miso, they served it with buckwheat. It seemed like a strange combination but after 30 seconds you could taste the two fats coming together beautifully.

I got back to my kitchen and after a bit of research realised that mackerel and buckwheat both contained omega 3 and 6. I found out that linseeds also contained these fatty acids and so I toasted some until they smelt like my cricket bat when I used to oil it at the beginning of the season.

I scattered them on a miso-marinated mackerel fillet and, sure enough, the two flavours worked. If cooking has become your obsession, try smoking your fillets to make today’s recipe even better.

Stephen Harris is chef-patron of The Sportsman in Seasalter, Kent, which was named best restaurant and best gastropub at the National Restaurant Awards 2016.

Try Stephen's recipe: 

Miso mackerel with lettuce sauce

Return of the mack(erel): Stephen finishes this simple mackerel dish with toasted linseeds to bolster the delicious combination of fats  Credit: Andrew Twort & Annie Hudson